WASHINGTON — Despite its intense lobbying efforts and even a new round of sanctions enforcement announced Thursday, the Obama administration’s deal with Iran appears headed not just for a sanctions bill but a congressional effort to exert some control over the endgame.
At a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing Thursday morning, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) tersely reminded administration officials that past sanctions bill opposed by the White House have nonetheless passed overwhelmingly when brought to the floor.
“What I have seen is Iran deceive, delay and, over various administrations, march forward to the point where it seems that we are now ready to accept some form of an enrichment program in Iran. And so some of us are very skeptical not because of wide-eyed skepticism but of reality of what is the history so far,” Menendez said. “And I have to say part of my challenge in trying to listen to the administration is some of the same statements I’ve heard in the past.”
He dug up a Foreign Relations Committee transcript from 1991 in which the same arguments as today were brought against an Iran sanctions amendment: that it risked fracturing the international coalition that has been built up against the Islamic Republic and would amount to coercion.
“That amendment went on to pass 100-0,” Menendez concluded, leaning back in his chair and confidently eyeing witnesses Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who led the negotiating team in Geneva, and Treasury Department Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.
“And it is one of the things that you all, the administration, heralds today as the essence of what has gotten Iran to the negotiating table,” the senator continued. “So you’ll forgive me if I having heard many of the same arguments — we will break our international coalition, we will not have partners — that has been the argument as of two years ago and it is the argument today. ”
Menendez continued that he’s still seeing two sides of the agreement: what the administration says it contains, and what the Iranians say. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted to the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week that, despite initial administration denials of Iran’s claims, the agreement does not say Iran doesn’t have a right to enrich uranium.
And it’s not just that. Iran is reporting that construction on the Arak heavy water reactor will continue, while the Obama administration says they’ve halted progress there.
Sherman told the panel that Iran is only allowed to do construction on Arak that doesn’t directly lead to functioning in a nuclear program capacity, such as building a road or a wall.
“You say a road or wall, the reality is if you continue to construct all the elements except for the nuclear core that is a fundamental difference and it is not insignificant — especially if our view is that Arak really isn’t to be allowed at the end of the day,” Menendez said. “Why would we allow them to move to even any form of construction, which puts a greater and greater investment on their part to achieve their ultimate goal?”
He noted that the Iranians are launching a rocket next week under the guise of being part of their space program, though “it’s well known that this is just a cover for military ballistic weapons program.”
“I think that is a provocative action in the midst of such negotiations, should be interpreted as a sign of bad faith, and only reaffirms in our mind why we need to proceed with some efforts here.”
Menendez then said that while he still wants sanctions as “an insurance policy,” he’s “beginning to think based upon all of this is maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the endgame.”
“And at least what it finds acceptable as the final status. Because I’m getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to us as the final status … the administration versus what the Congress might find acceptable. And maybe defining that through a resolution may be a course of action that would affect the ultimate outcome here, which is obviously the most important one.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), also a member of the Banking panel and Menendez’s GOP counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, said what has shocked lawmakers the most about the deal is its apparent nature as a “series of rolling agreements that go on and on.”
“When does the clock actually start?” he asked.
“Our experts are in Vienna this week working with the P5+1, the IAEA and Iran to determine that start date and make sure that the sequence happens in the order in which we all believe it should,” Sherman responded.